With three bands, a record label and a rockumentary, can one guy really do it all? by NIC HARCOURT / portrait by CHRISTIAN WITKIN
1. You have a lot going on: You started a label, Third Man Records; you’re in the upcoming It Might Get Loud, a guitar documentary with the Edge and Jimmy Page; and now you’re in the Dead Weather. Are you ever too busy?
When art and music are happening, who am I to say, “I don’t have enough time for this right now”? I would hate to have business get in the way of something beautiful.
2. How would you describe the Dead Weather, as opposed to your other two bands, the White Stripes and the Raconteurs?
This feels darker and more dangerous—there’s a sexuality to it, and I don’t think any of the other music I’ve been involved with has had that. It has an edge—sort of scares me a little bit.
3. How did you connect with your Dead Weather bandmate, Kills frontwoman Alison Mosshart?
We’ve been friends a long time. Last year, when the Kills went on tour with the Raconteurs, we finally got to spend a lot more time together. By the end of the tour, she was coming out onstage and singing my songs because I had lost my voice. Pretty soon we started writing together.
4. Third Man Records. It’s kind of a music compound with everything under one roof, even a record store. How would you describe it?
I designed every panel in the entire place. It’s incredible. It has everything we could possibly want—master tape storage, a performance stage, a photo studio, a green screen, a dark room and offices for vinyl production. There’s even a record store that’s open to the public. In Detroit back in ’98, I was recording bands in my living room on a four-track and putting out music on Italy Records, a small vinyl label in town. I think I’m doing the exact same thing now on a bigger scale.
5. But with the music industry struggling and vinyl a kind of novelty, how do you make the business case for this?
The industry is sort of falling apart, and I think the big problem is the loss of tangible items. Teenagers are buying vinyl, so let’s f--king get on board, you know? At Third Man, we print the covers a block away and do the packaging ourselves. It’s not a vanity record label.
6. Has moving to Nashville, still considered to be the songwriting capital of the world, had any impact on your writing?
I know everyone in town is involved in music. In L.A., every waiter is an actor. Here, every gas-station attendant is a songwriter. But at the same time, it’s not a bustling metropolitan town that has 15 million people screaming and running around. It’s quiet, you know?
7. It Might Get Loud comes out in August. How did you get involved?
Davis Guggenheim, who directed An Inconvenient Truth, asked me. He was describing a movie about guitars, and I was like, “I don’t know if that’s for me, man.” I started thinking of things like Guitar Center instruction videos. Then I talked to Davis, and what I liked is he didn’t have any idea what he wanted. That speaks volumes. When somebody has a three-page explanation of just what they want, I’m sort of turned off. If they can tell me in two sentences what the idea is and leave it open to having God in the room and letting things happen, I’m in.
8. I’m guessing that because you play the blues, you’re a fan of Jimmy Page and Zeppelin. What about the Edge and U2?
I told Edge that in high school, I only had enough money for a couple of CDs, and Achtung Baby was one of the them. I love the guitar on that record, and I played the hell out of it. Edge has this niche, this infinite guitar sound where nobody can touch him. It’s extremely hard to come up with a new style, so I’ve had respect for him forever.
9. And what about Mr. Page?
He’s not that good. [Laughs.] I think the guitar solo in “Whole Lotta Love” is possibly some of the greatest notes ever put on tape. I had a cassette of that when I was seven, and I rewound it so many times there was nothing left. I still have that feeling when I hear that song on the radio. There’s something incredibly explosive there.
10. What was the most interesting thing you learned about each of these guys during the making of the film?
How passionate they really are. You never know with people who have done these incredible things how much was on purpose and how much was an accident. You sort of think, Oh my God, they just flew into town and recorded that in a mobile studio, and in two days they were done. It’s hard to see from a distance if people truly have it or if they just project it—and these dudes definitely have passion.